Tuesday, August 30, 2005
Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam.
The Vietnamization of Bush's Vacation
by Frank Rich
Another week in Iraq, another light at the end of the tunnel. On Monday President Bush saluted the Iraqis for "completing work on a democratic constitution" even as the process was breaking down yet again. But was anyone even listening to his latest premature celebration?
We have long since lost count of all the historic turning points and fast-evaporating victories hyped by this president. The toppling of Saddam's statue, "Mission Accomplished," the transfer of sovereignty and the purple fingers all blur into a hallucinatory loop of delusion. One such red-letter day, some may dimly recall, was the adoption of the previous, interim constitution in March 2004, also proclaimed a "historic milestone" by Mr. Bush. Within a month after that fabulous victory, the insurgency boiled over into the war we have today, taking, among many others, the life of Casey Sheehan.
It's Casey Sheehan's mother, not those haggling in Baghdad's Green Zone, who really changed the landscape in the war this month. Not because of her bumper-sticker politics or the slick left-wing political operatives who have turned her into a circus, but because the original, stubborn fact of her grief brought back the dead the administration had tried for so long to lock out of sight. With a shove from Pat Robertson, her 15 minutes are now up, but even Mr. Robertson's antics revealed buyer's remorse about Iraq; his stated motivation for taking out Hugo Chávez by assassination was to avoid "another $200 billion war" to remove a dictator.
In the wake of Ms. Sheehan's protest, the facts on the ground in America have changed almost everywhere. The president, for one, has been forced to make what for him is the ultimate sacrifice: jettisoning chunks of vacation to defend the war in any bunker he can find in Utah or Idaho. In the first speech of this offensive, he even felt compelled to take the uncharacteristic step of citing the number of American dead in public (though the number was already out of date by at least five casualties by day's end). For the second, the White House recruited its own mom, Tammy Pruett, for the president to showcase as an antidote to Ms. Sheehan. But in a reversion to the president's hide-the-fallen habit, the chosen mother was not one who had lost a child in Iraq.
It isn't just Mr. Bush who is in a tight corner now. Ms. Sheehan's protest was the catalyst for a new national argument about the war that managed to expose both the intellectual bankruptcy of its remaining supporters on the right and the utter bankruptcy of the Democrats who had rubber-stamped this misadventure in the first place.
When the war's die-hard cheerleaders attacked the Middle East policy of a mother from Vacaville, Calif., instead of defending the president's policy in Iraq, it was definitive proof that there is little cogent defense left to be made. When the Democrats offered no alternative to either Mr. Bush's policy or Ms. Sheehan's plea for an immediate withdrawal, it was proof that they have no standing in the debate.
Instead, two conservative Republicans - actually talking about Iraq instead of Ms. Sheehan, unlike the rest of their breed - stepped up to fill this enormous vacuum: Chuck Hagel and Henry Kissinger. Both pointedly invoked Vietnam, the war that forged their political careers. Their timing, like Ms. Sheehan's, was impeccable. Last week Mr. Bush started saying that the best way to honor the dead would be to "finish the task they gave their lives for" - a dangerous rationale that, as David Halberstam points out, was heard as early as 1963 in Vietnam, when American casualties in that fiasco were still inching toward 100.
And what exactly is our task? Mr. Bush's current definition - "as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down" - could not be a better formula for quagmire. Twenty-eight months after the fall of Saddam, only "a small number" of Iraqi troops are capable of fighting without American assistance, according to the Pentagon - a figure that Joseph Biden puts at "fewer than 3,000." At this rate, our 138,000 troops will be replaced by self-sufficient locals in roughly 100 years.
For his part, Mr. Hagel backed up his assertion that we are bogged down in a new Vietnam with an irrefutable litany of failure: "more dead, more wounded, less electricity in Iraq, less oil being pumped in Iraq, more insurgency attacks, more insurgents coming across the border, more corruption in the government." Mr. Kissinger no doubt counts himself a firm supporter of Mr. Bush, but in Washington Post this month, he drew a damning lesson from Vietnam: "Military success is difficult to sustain unless buttressed by domestic support." Anyone who can read a poll knows that support is gone and is not coming back. The president's approval rating dropped to 36 percent in one survey last week.
What's left is the option stated bluntly by Mr. Hagel: "We should start figuring out how we get out of there."
He didn't say how we might do that. John McCain has talked about sending more troops to rectify our disastrous failure to secure the country, but he'll have to round them up himself door to door. As the retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey reported to the Senate, the National Guard is "in the stage of meltdown and in 24 months we'll be coming apart." At the Army, according to The Los Angeles Times, officials are now predicting an even worse shortfall of recruits in 2006 than in 2005. The Leo Burnett advertising agency has been handed $350 million for a recruitment campaign that avoids any mention of Iraq.
Among Washington's Democrats, the only one with a clue seems to be Russell Feingold, the Wisconsin senator who this month proposed setting a "target date" (as opposed to a deadline) for getting out. Mr. Feingold also made the crucial observation that "the president has presented us with a false choice": either "stay the course" or "cut and run." That false choice, in which Mr. Bush pretends that the only alternative to his reckless conduct of the war is Ms. Sheehan's equally apocalyptic retreat, is used to snuff out any legitimate debate. There are in fact plenty of other choices echoing about, from variations on Mr. Feingold's timetable theme to buying off the Sunni insurgents.
But don't expect any of Mr. Feingold's peers to join him or Mr. Hagel in fashioning an exit strategy that might work. If there's a moment that could stand for the Democrats' irrelevance it came on July 14, the day Americans woke up to learn of the suicide bomber in Baghdad who killed as many as 27 people, nearly all of them children gathered around American troops. In Washington that day, the presumptive presidential candidate Hillary Clinton held a press conference vowing to protect American children from the fantasy violence of video games.
The Democrats are hoping that if they do nothing, they might inherit the earth as the Bush administration goes down the tubes. Whatever the dubious merits of this Kerryesque course as a political strategy, as a moral strategy it's unpatriotic. The earth may not be worth inheriting if Iraq continues to sabotage America's ability to take on Iran and North Korea, let alone Al Qaeda.
As another politician from the Vietnam era, Gary Hart, observed last week, the Democrats are too cowardly to admit they made a mistake three years ago, when fear of midterm elections drove them to surrender to the administration's rushed and manipulative Iraq-war sales pitch. So now they are compounding the original error as the same hucksters frantically try to repackage the old damaged goods.
IN the new pitch there are no mushroom clouds. Instead we get McCarthyesque rhetoric accusing critics of being soft on the war on terrorism, which the Iraq adventure has itself undermined. Before anyone dare say Vietnam, the president, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld drag in the historian David McCullough and liken 2005 in Iraq to 1776 in America - and, by implication, the original George W. to ours. Before you know it, Ahmad Chalabi will be rehabilitated as Ben Franklin.
The marketing campaign will crescendo in two weeks, on the anniversary of 9/11, when a Defense Department "Freedom Walk" will trek from the site of the Pentagon attack through Arlington National Cemetery to a country music concert on the Mall. There the false linkage of Iraq to 9/11 will be hammered in once more, this time with a beat: Clint Black will sing "I Raq and Roll," a ditty whose lyrics focus on Saddam, not the Islamic radicals who actually attacked America. Lest any propaganda opportunity be missed, Arlington's gravestones are being branded with the Pentagon's slogans for military campaigns, like Operation Iraqi Freedom, The Associated Press reported last week - a historic first. If only the administration had thought of doing the same on the fallen's coffins, it might have allowed photographs.
Even though their own poll numbers are in a race to the bottom with the president's, don't expect the Democrats to make a peep. Republicans, their minds increasingly focused on November 2006, may well blink first. In yet another echo of Vietnam, it's millions of voters beyond the capital who will force the timetable for our inexorable exit from Iraq.
Triangulation for War
by Norman Solomon
Over the weekend, a spectrum of liberal responses to Cindy Sheehan came into sharper focus.
The message is often anti-Bush... but not necessarily anti-war.
Frank Rich spun out his particular style of triangulation in the New York Times. While deriding President Bush's stay-the-course stance, Rich also felt a need to disparage the most visible advocate for quick withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
Putting down Sheehan -- and, by implication, the one-third of the U.S. public that wants all American troops to exit Iraq without delay -- Rich's column on Sunday mocked "her bumper-sticker politics" and "the slick left-wing political operatives who have turned her into a circus."
Rich criticized "the utter bankruptcy of the Democrats who had rubber-stamped this misadventure in the first place." Yet, in effect, he was willing to help rubber-stamp continuation of the "misadventure" in the present tense.
The president, Rich lamented, "pretends that the only alternative to his reckless conduct of the war is Ms. Sheehan's equally apocalyptic retreat."
Equating what George W. Bush is doing with what Cindy Sheehan is advocating? Is there really an option for non-reckless "conduct of the war" that would be better than ending the U.S. war effort in Iraq?
Rich praised Sen. Russell Feingold's "timetable theme" -- along the lines of getting U.S. Troops out of Iraq by the end of next year. That would be a "target date," Rich explained approvingly, "as opposed to a deadline."
But no realistic explanation is available as to what conditions will exist in December 2006 that won't exist in December 2005 in Iraq. Are we supposed to believe that all the Americans who die next year -- and all the Iraqis they kill and all the Iraqis who die at the hands of other Iraqis incensed by the U.S. occupation -- should be ultimately sacrificed so that pundits, politicians and their reliable sources can wait a decent interval before (in Rich's words) "our inexorable exit from Iraq"?
For that matter, we should question just how "inexorable" a U.S. exit from Iraq is. After all, it's hardly certain that the worst and dumbest or the best and brightest in Washington will opt for evacuation of the U.S. military bases in Iraq. And can we really assume that the president will order complete withdrawal from a country with so many billions of barrels of oil under the sand?
While many anti-GOP pundits insist that a fast withdrawal is no way to go, numerous leaders of the Democratic Party are even more eager to triangulate. "Senior Democrats sought to distance themselves Sunday from Sheehan's protest," the Washington Post reports. On a Fox network show, Sen. Byron Dorgan said: "If we withdrew tomorrow, there would be a bloodbath in Iraq. We can't do that." Yet a bloodbath is already well underway in Iraq and shows no sign of abating under the U.S. Occupation
Meanwhile, a more overt pro-war position is explicit from the Washington Post, which seems bent on replicating its blood-soaked history of editorial support for the Vietnam War.
In August 1966 the Post's owner, Katharine Graham, discussed the war with a writer in line to take charge of the newspaper's editorial page. "We agreed that the Post ought to work its way out of the very supportive editorial position it had taken, but that we couldn't be precipitate; we had to move away gradually from where we had been," Graham was to write in her autobiography. Many more deaths resulted from such unwillingness to "be precipitate."
In August 2005, while noting the latest setbacks for the U.S. agenda in Iraq, the Post's editorial on the last Saturday of the month did not waver -- and was certainly not precipitate: "There is no cause for despair, or for abandoning the basic U.S. strategy in Iraq, which is to support the election of a permanent national government and train security forces capable of defending it with continuing help from American troops. But it is dispiriting, and damaging to the chances for success, that President Bush still refuses to speak honestly to the country about the challenges the United States now faces, or how he intends to address them."
This is an inventive proclivity of the Washington Post and many other corporate media outlets that are eager to advise the president on how to build a better war trap.
Meanwhile, by any measure in this country, the summer has brought a grassroots upsurge of insistence that the Iraq war is not suitable for tinkering or for a long goodbye. On Monday, two days after the Post published its editorial claiming that "there is no cause for despair," a news article in the paper quoted one of the activists who has been working for years against this war. Nancy Lessin, a co-founder of Military Families Speak Out, is working on preparations for bus tours that will soon depart from Crawford and travel various routes to Washington, with activists aboard from MFSO, Gold Star Families for Peace, Iraq Veterans Against the War, and Veterans for Peace.
"The questions that Cindy Sheehan has for George Bush are now questions for members of Congress and decision-makers across the country," Lessin said. "We are not here to make deals with the lives of our children. We will be calling on all decision-makers to bring the troops home now."
Commentators who dismiss such a plea as "bumper-sticker politics" have failed to truly grasp the significance of the Vietnam War and its somber memorials, including the one in Washington. Those pundits do not comprehend the writing on the wall.
Norman Solomon is the author of the new book "War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death." For information, go to: www.WarMadeEasy.com